Tuesday, February 28, 2006

I'm so excited...

...and I just can't hide it.

About 15 hours from now, Team USA will take the field in Germany to play against Poland. The United States section of the World Cup Blog linked me to an interesting article over at ESPN. I learned that this match against Poland is probably the only time that Bruce Arena will have access to the full compliment of players. March 1st is the last FIFA-sanctioned playing date prior to the World Cup.

As I'm sure my reader(s) can recall, I've briefly covered part about FIFA mandating certain periods of time that club teams *must* release players to play with their national teams. What I didn't know was that March 1st was the last such date. Woah. That's a little disappointing to me, as a fan of the United States Men's National Team, but I suppose it *is* the club teams that pay the bills. Fortunately, our domestic league, MLS, is in the off-season, so those players don't really have many club team obligations. If the MLS one day gets close to the quality of the domestic leagues of Italy, Spain, Germany, and/or England, this looks to be a huge advantage for the U.S. team. So, dear reader(s), tell your grandkid(s) that you read it here first.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Where we are in 2006

So, to continue bring my reader(s) up to date on the United States Men's National Team, as they prepare for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, I will summarize the preparations thus far.

January 22nd: USA 0-0 Canada. I don't have much to say about this game. It wasn't on TV, so I didn't see it. I thought this was a very disappointing score line. Even at the beginnning of our preparations, I would have thought that we could score against Canada. Freddie Adu made his first international appearance, and became the youngest U.S. player to do so, at 16 years, 234 days. He came in during the 81st minute of a 90-minute game for an injured Eddie Johnson, and became the youngest American player to receive a yellow card for diving (16 years, 234 days). He was released from the training camp within the next two weeks.

January 29th: USA 5-0 Norway. This seems like a great result. It is the largest margin of victory the U.S. Men have ever had over a European opponent, and one of our forwards, Taylor Twellman, tallied the 9th ever hat trick for a U.S. player. Norway nearly qualified for the World Cup, having lost a two-game play-off with the Czech Republic just 6 weeks earlier. The U.S. plays the Czechs in their first game at the World Cup, so I initially thought this was an outstanding result. However, I did some research, and we played a totally different Norway team than the Czechs beat last December. Only one starter and one reserve from December's roster made the trip to California, and the rest of the team consisted primarily of younger, Under-23 players. So, concerning the present, there is not a whole lot you can take from this, but 25 or 30 years ago, it would not be at all surprising for an U-23 team such as this to beat our best team.

February 10th: USA 3-2 Japan. This was the home game I was waiting for! Japan was one of the final 16 teams last year, and I felt this team would offer us the best competion. The Japanese only brought over their domestic players, and their Brazilian coach, Zico, seemed to use this as an excuse, saying, "The biggest problem is we can't form our best team. Most of our players in Europe are not here right now." Well, Zico, we can make the same claim... Team USA consisted entirely of MLS players, save for the aforementioned Heath Pearce, who was a 90th minute sub in this game. Our team pretty much dominated for the first 65 minutes, and Taylor Twellman again figured prominently in the score line with two assists and a goal. He might be off the bubble with this performance. Japan pulled two goals back in the end, but U.S. Coach Bruce Arena was unconcerned, attributing the final score line to the many second half substitutes both teams used. In World Cup play, each team can only substitute 3 players, but in friendlies such as these, both teams usually agree to allow more. I didn't like the late goals, but if Coach Arena is unconcerned about them, I suppose I shouldn't be either.

Feburary 19th: USA 4-0 Guatemala. We beat this team pretty thoroughly. Guatemala is an opponent we know well, and most people thought they had a good chance of making the World Cup this year, because the CONCACAF region was alotted "three and a half" spots. The game was played at below freezing temperatures, with freezing rain falling, yet I don't think anyone expected a drastically different result. This game marked the debut of Team USA's new away jerseys, which look like throw-backs to about 10 years ago. I was looking forward to seeing the home whites, which pay homage to the historic 1950 World Cup team, who upset a powerful England team, 1-0.

Today, the U.S. team has arrived in Germany for their game against Poland, scheduled for March 1st, at 2:00 PM EST. I have arranged to be off of work so that I can watch the game on ESPN. We'll be recalling a number of our European-based players, so it's going to be a good one to watch. This game will be played in Kaiserslautern, Germany, and will take place in the same venue as Team USA's second World Cup game (against Italy). I think that it is really neat that we'll get to play a good team like Poland in the same stadium as we'll eventually play Italy. Kaiserslautern is home to tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed overseas, so I hope the crowd comes out and supports the team.

In addition to our game against Poland, there are several other interesting match-ups that are scheduled to occur. Italy, Germany, and Argentina are three of the top seeds that will be seeing action this day.

Future games on the U.S. preparation schedule include another game in Germany, on March 22nd, against the German team, as well as a home game back in Cary, N.C., against Jamaica, on April 11th. We've also announced that we intend to play three other games in May, but the dates, locations, and opponents have not yet been determined.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Explanation Continuation

Again, I want to get casual fans and would-be fans caught up to the United States Men's National Team, as they ready themselves for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, to take place this summer in Germany...

On January 4th, 2006, Coach Bruce Arena summoned 3o players to a training camp to prepare for the World Cup Finals. All but one of them were from our own domestic league, known as MLS (Major League Soccer). The one who wasn't from MLS plays in the Danish Super League. His team was on an extended winter break, and that allowed him to participate in Arena's camp.

Many of our best players play in Europe, and most European teams cannot (or will not) release their players to play for their national teams. Under FIFA rules, the club teams (which represent a city in a national league, like, for example, the New York Mets) are not obligated to release their players for National Team activities. It would kinda be like if U.S. Olympic team coach wanted to pull all the NHL players from their teams to have an American Olympic Team practice session. Well, most (if not all) NHL GMs would say, "stuff it," (or worse) to the National Team coach.

In the soccer world, FIFA has stepped in, and mandated dates and windows where club teams *must* release their players to their National Team coaches. I believe the next such date is the 1st of March. But until then, players need to play for their clubs. Club play is very important in Europe. Let me try to give an example why:

Everyone in America can understand why teams at the top strive to perform their best. If your team makes the playoffs (in any given sport), you have the possibility of winning out, and being crowned the champion for that season. According to Win-Loss records, the Pittsburgh Steelers were the worst team to make the NFL playoffs last season. Out of the six teams that made the playoffs for the American Football Conference, they were the worst. The sixth-seeded Steelers, however, went on a 4-game playoff winning streak, culminating in a Superbowl victory over the Seattle Seahawks, to be crowned "world" champions of the National Football League.

But, what about teams at the bottom of the standings? The European soccer leagues have an excellent way of handling that. Let me compare one of the best soccer leagues in the world, located in Italy, to Major League Baseball in the U.S. Serie A (pronounced Seree Ahh) is one of the top domestic soccer leagues in the world. Only England, Germany, and Spain, have a top to bottom league that can compare to Italy's. If your team is at the bottom of the standings in Serie A, what keeps the team from packing it in at the end of the season?

I'll tell you, in terms of Major League Baseball. The worst four teams in MLB this year were the Kansas City Royals, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Colorado Rockies, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Each of these teams lost at least 95 games out of 162, with the Royals losing a whopping 106 games! In America, they get to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again next year (after having the top choice in the draft). Not in Europe, though.

In Italy's Serie A (as well as in every other country's national soccer league), these teams would get "relegated," which means they would be removed from the top league, and placed down in one of the lower leagues. In Italy, it's called "Serie B," and the American baseball equivalent would be AAA. That's right -- if you stink up the season like the Royals, the Pirates, the Rockies, and the D-Rays did, you would find yourself as a triple-A team the following season.

The best triple-A baseball teams would get promoted into the Major Leagues the following season. It really is a great system. If, as a Major League team, you don't fight until the end of the season, you risk losing your MLB status. That means no 1st draft pick, less revenue at your stadiums, and a severe lack of sponsorship from corporate sponsors. What corporate sponsor would pay top dollar for a triple-A team? No company would. Your team would get a reduced sponsorship rate (if any at all) so that the big bucks could go towards a team where you used to be -- the Big Leagues.

So yes, a hypothetical single-A Durham Bulls baseball team, under the European system, could win the A-league one year, and get promoted to double-A the next year. If they were able to win the double-A league the following year, get promoted, and win the triple-A baseball league in the subsequent year, you would have the Durham Bulls in the Major Leagues! Crash would've loved that.

And that is what makes the bottom teams in European leagues continue to fight for wins late in the year. You don't have to rely on tired old clichés, such as, "Oh, they are playing for pride, now!" No, you really have something substantial to lose if you finish at the bottom in Europe.

So, to tie this back into the U.S. preparations for the FIFA 2006 World Cup, we were not able to assemble our best players to train together as a team due to some players having European club team obligations. Other country's teams, however, are at the same disadvantage when it comes to gathering the nation's top players to practice together.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Time to Catch Up

The purpose of this post is to get everyone on the same page, concerning the 2006 FIFA World Cup. The World Cup is a 32-nation soccer tournament that is held every four years. The 2006 rendition will be hosted by Germany, and is scheduled to take place from the 9th of June until the 9th of July. FIFA (pronounced "FEE-fuh") is the world governing body of soccer, and is headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland. FIFA is an abbreviation for Fédération Internationale de Football Association.

Actually, any nation that is able to field a team may participate in the tournament -- what we're going to see this summer are the "Finals." Nations play in a series of continental and/or regional tournaments in order to qualify. Qualifying games for this summer's tournament started in the summer of 2004 for the United States. The South Americans were the first to actually began holding qualifying tournaments for the 2006 World Cup Finals back in September of 2003! Africa and Asia also began in late 2003.

So this summer is the Finals portion of the tournament -- the final 32 countries. The goal is to have the best 32 teams in the world, but every tournament has exceptions. The country of Turkey finished in 3rd place at the last tournament in 2002, however they failed to even make the final 32 teams this year. On the other hand, you usually don't see any "minnows" make the field of 32, but this year's tournament will include the tiny island nation of Trinidad & Tobago.

I suppose a bit of perspective is in order, though. I'm sure my European reader(s) would argue that if the team wasn't from Europe or South America, then it's probably one of the aforementioned "minnows." I suppose FIFA wanted global representation at the Finals, so the the 32 teams come from all across the globe.

Which reminds me... Many Americans like to call the winner of the Superbowl the "World Champions." Same with the NBA -- the winner of that league somehow get the global crown (i.e., the "World Champion" Chicago Bulls in the '90's). Baseball has it's "World Series." Unfortunately, none of these are truly global tournaments. So it is a bit inaccurate to refer to our pro-sports league champions as "World" champions. It's not only inaccurate, but also arrogant, in my opinion.

What's neat about the World Cup is that it is truly a global tournament. From Canada to Sri Lanka, and from Madagascar to Luxembourg... From the microscopic islands in the South Pacific (even the nation of Tonga), to all the Lesser Antilles in the Carribean, where the U.S. Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands each fielded teams), this World Cup tournament is accurately named indeed.

Welcome Back

After a long hiatus, I have decided to make a comeback.

I have decided to focus on the second half of this blog's title, and that is "Football." And I'm not talking about the Steelers, either. You should read the word more like "Futbol," because that is what I want to write about. The 2006 FIFA World Cup is around the corner, and I am passionate about the United States Men's National Team.

I'll reserve the right to make comments of a political nature, of course, but my intent right now is to lay off of the second oldest professsion. That is part of the reason for the very long time since my last post -- I just got so frustrated with what was going on, leading up to the election, that I had to start thinking about other things.

My other reason also has to do with frustration. I would read other blogs before posting, and by the time I sat down to write on my own blog, it seemed that every issue that seemed interesting to me had been covered and covered.

And covered.

So I'm going to forget all that for awhile, and focus on Germany, 2006. So, dear reader(s), to quote one of my favorite country music singers (when I do actually listen to country music):
"Are you ready for some futbol?"